Take a look around you. I bet that somewhere in your line of sight, there is some form of plastic. It’s everywhere – our lives revolve around its convenience and its inescapable accessibility. The supermarket is an obvious place to start when considering just how useful plastic can be. Put one foot in Tesco and you will be confronted with row after row of plastic-clad vegetables, punnets of fruit and sandwiches, all sealed in for hygiene and freshness. Consider your average meal deal: your choice of sandwich, some classic Walkers crisps, and a bottle of water. All come sealed within some form of plastic – it is endemic within the way we shop, and within the way we view and purchase food. Now, look for the telltale green label that indicates that something can be recycled. Will that stop you from chucking your sandwich wrapper in the closest Market Street bin whilst you rush to your next lecture? We all hope that we will recycle, but is that the reality? Is the infrastructure to allow that even in place? Only 9% of all plastic waste on earth has ever been recycled. The UN estimates that 40% of the global population lack any access to waste disposal systems, never mind recycling centres. With this in mind, it seems that recycling is not a viable, long-term solution.
It is easy to demonise plastic – there is nothing that evokes this more effectively than turning on the TV to images of seals and turtles tangled in plastic bags, whilst David Attenborough’s sad but dulcet tones relay the tragedy that we have brought upon ourselves and our beautiful planet. And it’s true: 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, yet we continue to use it at alarming rates. The consumer in most cases has little choice in the matter – plastic consumption is so engrained within our society that it is impossible to avoid. And yes, it seems that although plastic is environmentally satanic, upon further consideration, the issue is not so obvious, and the solutions become even more evasive.
Around a decade ago, one UK supermarket experimented by taking all of its fruit and vegetables out of their packaging – the result was that food waste doubled. Currently, according to a UK government report, only 3% of food is wasted before it gets to the shops – some of this food will have been transported halfway across the world, and it will still be fresh. In our increasingly globalised world, we can import and export fresh produce year-round from developing countries, and in doing so, countless livelihoods are created and maintained for those who desperately need them. This would not be possible without plastic. We need plastic; we rely on it. Just as it has infiltrated every ocean and every ecosystem, it has also infiltrated our society to a point, sadly, of no return. On a scale much larger than simply food production, plastic was revolutionary. It was a miracle-worker. The modern world has grown up with it, and around it.
Consider another environmental demon: the transport sector. The terrible impact of vehicle emissions on the global atmosphere and climate has been well-documented, with links between carbon dioxide and global warming being irrefutable (except if you’re Donald Trump). However, one way to reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere by vehicles is to make them lighter – and the most effective way to do this is by using more plastic in place of traditional materials. For every pound of vehicle weight that can be eliminated, 25.3 pounds of CO2 emissions are saved over the course of a vehicles lifetime. The plot thickens. According to the British Plastics Federation, studies have shown that if we replaced plastic packaging with alternative materials, it would actually result in 2.7 times more greenhouse gas emissions being released into the atmosphere.
So, to end, two uncharacteristically negative truths: ‘Saving the planet’ is not straightforward. Indeed, ‘saving the planet’ might not be possible at all. National Geographic recently launched a campaign called ‘Planet or Plastic’, as if the choice were this obvious and straightforward. Sadly not. It is far more complex, which is probably why nobody can think of a solution. Despite being one of the most devastating materials to have ever been invented, in some respects, the fact remains that plastic has a lot to offer. Plastic is perhaps the very definition of a double-edged sword – except lighter and more cheaply manufactured than traditional swords, with the additional option of transparency.